Are Clermont Auvergne Finally Ready to Conquer Europe?

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CLERMONT-FERRAND, FRANCE - DECEMBER 17: Clermont Auvernge fans during the European Rugby Champions Cup match between ASM Clermont Auvergne and Saracens at Stade Marcel-Michelin on December 17, 2017 in Clermont-Ferrand, France. (Photo by David Rogers/Getty Images)

So often the bridesmaids, but are Clermont Auvergne finally ready to take centre stage at the top of the altar after consecutive wins over Saracens?

Clermont Auvergne 24 – Saracens 21

Sunday’s 24-21 victory over the struggling European champions came courtesy of Scott Spedding’s late penalty. This meant the men from the Massif Central backed up their scintillating demolition at Allianz Park just six days previous.

It puts them firmly in control of Pool 2 with Ospreys and Northampton left to play. A win in round five will secure their passage into the knockout stages.

It comes as somewhat of a surprise given the form domestically where they languish in mid-table. However for some years now it’s been clear how much Clermont Auvergne crave this European crown that has eluded them at the final hurdle in three of the last five years.

What’s Changed for the French Champions?

A certain recycling of players has occurred which has enabled a new motivation to invigorate a group of players understandably deflated from last season’s final defeat to Saracens. Nick Abendanon’s post match interview summed up how the group felt that day.

Alivereti Raka and Isaia Toeava have added serious stardust to an already exceptional outfit and current Top 14 champions. Raka scored a hat-trick within 12 minutes against the most envied defence in Europe whilst Toeava is being deployed at 10; a position he is not used to.

That is down to the injury to Camille Lopez; what a luxury to have such a quality reserve.  Clermont Auvergne are looking this good and their exceptional fly-half is on the treatment table, but they hope to have him back for the knockout stages in April.

Those knockout contests are something Clermont Auvergne have grown to in the last five years or so. They’ve learnt, which isn’t always a traditional French trait, to manage contests more efficiently and appreciate that sheer power won’t get you all of the way.

The last week has demonstrated that perfectly. Clermont Auvergne took Saracens apart in their own back yard broadcasting all the flair their possess, but six days later they showed a maturity to their game. Saracens outscored them two tries to nil but Morgan Parra, along with Spedding, were able to keep the scoreboard ticking and ensure that psychologically Clermont Auvergne were always in the game.

Always the Bridesmaids

It must be the most bitter pill to swallow for the yellow submarine. Certainly in their first two finals in 2013 and 2015 they were probably the better team, but twice Toulon managed to get over the line.  Last year Saracens always had Clermont Auvergne on the back foot and, although two tries brought them to within a score, they were always chasing that final.

This year though they look the best team in the competition alongside Leinster at the moment. Neither side have replicated that form domestically but when Europe comes calling they continue to play their best hand.

The semi-final between the two was among the best games of the season last year but Clermont edged it. Were the two to play tomorrow it’s likely most would back Clermont Avenge to win that contest again.

Possible Lack of Competition in Latter Stages

What Clermont Auvergne have in their favour this year is that the usual suspects are floundering slightly. Saracens’ current run of poor form is well documented. Fellow French heavyweights Toulon, Racing 92 and Montpellier have been inconsistent, with the latter still fighting to get out of their pool. Meanwhile English champions Exeter have struggled to translate their domestic success and Wasps currently sit third in their pool.

The bookies currently have Leinster as narrow favourites just ahead of Clermont Auvergne. The two look set for home quarter finals and anyone visiting the Stade Marcel Michelin knows the challenge that lies in wait.

The truth is they’ve lost more finals since 2013 then they have home games in Europe. This suggests a home quarter should translate into a semi final. Round four has only just concluded and already visions of Clermont Auvergne in the final four are certainly plausible.

A Matter of Time and Patience

The men from the Auvergne also have the law of averages on their side. Surely they cannot consistently reach finals without eventually winning one. They played in three consecutive Top 14 finals before they eventually got over the line in 2010.

Maybe this is just the Clermont Auvergne way – despite the disappointment, if they can finally lift Europe’s top prize make no mistake, it’ll all be worth it to those in yellow and blue.

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